The new agency in charge of handling police misconduct cases in Chicago officially launched Friday with a ceremonial swearing in of investigators and repeated assurances that the agency is more than just a rebrand.

The Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA) replaces the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), the agency that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s own Police Accountability Task Force and the Department of Justice described as a failure.

It was a “stinging indictment of the city’s police accountability structure,” reflected COPA Chief Administrator Sharon Fairley at a staged event at the South Shore Cultural Center.

The end of IPRA signals the near completion of a more than two year process to address the city’s past failures in properly addressing cases of police misconduct. The issue was made apparent on November 24, 2015, when a court order forced the city to release the now infamous dash-cam video of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke fatally shooting Laquan McDonald, an African-American teen.

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That was more than 660 days ago, and for much of the time since then it has been unclear how the city would handle the public outcry that followed. Though Mayor Emanuel was quick to fire then-Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and convene a task force to audit the city’s existing channels for addressing cases of police misconduct, the overall process dragged on, with what appeared to be a lack of political will from the Fifth Floor.

Even Police Board President Lori Lightfoot, who chaired the Police Accountability Task Force, convened her own coalition to pressure the administration. The group accused the mayor of dragging his feet.

The City Council held close to a dozen committee meetings at City Hall and in neighborhoods across the city for much of 2016 to solicit community input for what an IPRA replacement should look like. But the final product was a modest tweak to its original plan, despite calls from reformers for an oversight body fully independent of the Mayor’s Office and a more prominent role for civilians.

Those reformers said anything short of community oversight and independence from the Fifth Floor would result in a replay of 2007, when another policing scandal prompted the disbandment of Office of Professional Standards within the police department.

But on Friday, the inaugural launch speakers – Fairley, City Council Public Safety Chair Ariel Reboyras, and former CPD officer and president of COPA’s Civilian Advisory Panel, Richard Wooten — reframed the fraught process as a collaboration of disparate police reformers, touted Mayor Emanuel’s leadership and underscored how COPA will address the failures of its predecessor.

“I am here to tell you that COPA is not IPRA. With new leadership, new highly trained investigators, and a system of independence,” said Wooten, “COPA has become a new landmark, not just for Chicago, but the entire nation.”  

“COPA has doubled the needed personnel in order to resolve cases in a timely manner, and the best part is that we have several satellite stations to bring in the reports [of police misconduct],” added Ald. Reboyras. “I want to thank the mayor for allowing us to move forward in creating COPA and changing the image not only of the agency, but the City of Chicago.”

Fairley Outlines Differences Between COPA & IPRA

IPRA’s public case portal has been taken down, but Fairley told reporters the information will be back up on the COPA website in the near future. A majority of the staff has been hired. 15 open positions are expected to be filled by the end of the year. And certain rights offered to police officers that impacted the investigative process under IPRA, such as how soon an officer can be interviewed after a shooting, remain unchanged, since those rules are guided by the collective bargaining agreement the police union has with the city.

All of COPA’s policies have two underlying goals, said Fairley: improve the quality and timeliness of  investigations.

Speaking to reporters after the event, Fairley used officer involved shooting cases–the most serious types of investigations her office will handle–to emphasize new protocols that will enhance information sharing between COPA and the police department. Evidence related to these investigations will be done in concurrently, rather than after, the police department’s investigation.

She said the directives are nearly complete. Rules will include: giving COPA investigators immediate access to the scene of the shooting; simultaneous review of police video (previously CPD reviewed footage before IPRA); and coordinating the order of witness interviews.

There will be strengthened evidence processing with the help of experts hired by COPA, rather than relying on CPD to collect and process evidence for investigators. This includes new digital forensic analysts to capture and analyze data.

The department is soliciting a pool of subject matter experts that investigators it can rely on for reconstructing crime scenes and forensic medical evidence.

To prevent individual biases from supervisors or investigators, an issue the Department of Justice found to be one of the primary reasons so few IPRA-led investigations led to a finding of misconduct, COPA investigators will work in groups of five, rather than alone.

“They work as a squad, so there is less control, or less impact of one individual investigator,” she said. At IPRA, one supervisor could oversee a team of as many as 10 investigators, while at COPA, each team will have a maximum of five.

Reformer Concern With New Agency

Police Board President and Police Accountability Task Force head Lori Lightfoot says while there’s work to be done, the COPA launch deserves optimism. “I think the ordinance empowered COPA in a way that IPRA never was, but I also think Sharon Fairley and her team deserve credit for taking advantage of the opportunity to go forward,” she said, citing more rigorous training for recruits and engagement with subject matter experts over the transition period. “They’ve taken the time to do this right.”

“I have to add that what COPA will be judged by are the results. They’ve done the right things to lay a good and strong foundation, but meanwhile, in an environment when people are super skeptical about all forms of government, where folks are really questioning legitimacy of everything related to CPD, including IPRA, COPA, the Police Board, and so forth, it’s critically important that the work speaks for itself.”

One major concern for Karen Sheley from the ACLU of Illinois will be how CPD responds. “Over the last year, COPA’s been making recommendations to CPD in their quarterly and annual reports, and for many recommendations CPD has not responded. That’s worrisome, because COPA has a lot of information about patterns of officer behavior that CPD could head off and be trying to change. The fact that they aren’t responding is not a great sign for CPD’s willingness to have a public dialogue about changes they’re making and efforts for reform.”

Reformers are also concerned with the Fraternal Order of Police’s apparent resistance to the agency. A representative told the Chicago Tribune its current collective bargaining agreement (which is being renegotiated now) does not recognize COPA.

“As it stands now, the city has to turn a blind eye if the person injured by police doesn’t sign a sworn affidavit. That’s a real barrier to having true accountability,” Sheley said. “There are other provisions about technical requirements in interviews: the limitations on being able to interview officers after a shooting and failure to have restrictions on who officers on the scene talk to are things DOJ pointed out that could impact COPA’s ability to do its job.”